Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries  on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.

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When I saw these figs I could hardly believe they were real

We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.

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After 13 quinces last year, this haul was an utter delight

Quantity of Quince

But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.

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The medlars in the community garden are cropping well this autumn

Meeting Medlars

I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.

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A most unassuming fruit

The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.

The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)

I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.

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Beautiful, yet the undignified butt of many an ancient joke

Ancient Fruit

Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.

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One of the joys of growing quinces is their pale, cupped blossom in mid spring

In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of  making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.

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Quince cheese – a special autumn treat

Soup Tales

Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book. 

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The downy coating on an unripe quince disappears as it ripens

Although we have a few foraged medlars they haven’t yet completely bletted, so this time I’ve substituted one of our Egremont Russet apples as suggested in the recipe:

Ingredients

50g (2oz) butter

575g (11b 5oz) quince (approx 3), peeled, cored and roughly chopped

1 russet apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (or bletted medlar – I’d use 3/4 and just add the flesh to the soup mix)

1 teaspoon tumeric

1.25 litres chicken stock

3 tablespoons single cream

2 egg yolks

salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the quince, medlar and tumeric. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Process in a liquidiser until smooth, then return to the pan. Beat the cream and egg yolks together, add a ladle full of soup to this mixture then pour into the soup. Cook gently over a low heat until the mixture thickens, stirring continuously. Season to taste.

From New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Soup & Beyond (1999)

The Taste of History

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Prince and Pedlar Soup finally in the flesh

Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.

 

What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.

 

Sowing the Seeds of Tomorrow

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The offending articles

When my godson was three his favourite foods were apples and peas: a predilection that I naively assumed was the norm for small children. As my son started on solid foods I offered him fruit and vegetables with enthusiastic expectations, only to find he cried when peas appeared on his plate and the concept of eating apple brought on sulking and tantrums.

Perplexed, I persevered – we sowed seeds together, pricked out tomato seedlings, watched apples swell and picked as many colourful crops as we could – yellow ‘Allgold’ raspberries, ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Pinkberry’ blueberries, deep red ‘Boltardy’ beetroot, striped ‘Green Tiger’ tomatoes and purple-podded ‘Blauwschokker’ peas.

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Vivid colours motivate children to try new foods…

Gradually he started trying a wider range of fruit and vegetables – it’s hard not to get excited about ripening tomatoes when you can remember pushing the seeds into moist compost with your fingers. That was over 5 years ago, and this week my daughter (6) decided she likes our homegrown beetroot and my son (now 9) ate one of our James Grieve apples whole – an unimaginable feat just a year ago. 

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First steps – sowing seeds…

We have all benefited from growing food as a family. Each spring we choose our crops for the next growing season and from that moment, the anticipation begins. This February we made our choices and were soon surrounded by a colourful collection of seed packets from the Fun To Grow range, courtesy of Suttons Seeds. We began with Table Top Tomato, sowing the seeds almost immediately, then started off the delightfully alliterative Crocodile Cucumber, Mini Muncher Peas, spherical Bowling Carrots and the non-edible but nonetheless exciting Dancing Plant and Caterpillar Plant a few weeks later.

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Pleased with the new arrivals

Recycling has been a family priority this year, so we began by making our own seed pots out of old newspaper. It’s a fun job and the kids quickly got the hang of wrapping the paper strips at just the right tension so they would slide off easily once the bottoms had been firmly secured.

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First job: roll the pot sides

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Pressing down the base firmly ensures the compost won’t escape later

Then we filled our pots with compost and read the seed packet instructions – learning about the varying depths, light conditions and germination temperatures that different seeds require. 

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Writing labels

Once the pots were labelled, we counted the days until germination and slowly but surely tiny shoots and seed leaves began to appear. The appearance of new growth, that magical emergence, fills cold spring days with joy for adult gardeners – so what a wonderful experience for young children for whom the world is naturally filled with enchantment. 

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Crocodile cucumber buckets

In late spring we planted the Crocodile Cucumbers into a couple of broken buckets, the Table Top Tomatoes went in the greenhouse with the Caterpillar Plants, and the Mini Muncher Peas and Bowling Carrots began developing in the vegetable beds.

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Table Top Tomatoes were a sweet hit with the kids

We ate peas fresh from the pod throughout June and the tomatoes are still being picked and ripening in the greenhouse. The cucumbers have produced so many fruit that we’ve had enough for tzatziki – another first for the kids, declared ‘delicious’ and requested as a regular dip with pitta and olives. 

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Tasty Mini Muncher Peas are so low growing that they need no staking and are easily accessible for small people

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These ‘Boltardy’ beets were harvested by the kids for Beetroot and Chocolate cupcakes

The Caterpillar Plants have bloomed all summer in the greenhouse – tiny yellow flowers which have turned into the eponymous caterpillars curled back on their stems, providing seeds for sowing next year. The Sensitive Plants didn’t germinate, so no scientific experiments to test whether the foliage responds to our touch this year. But it’s good that the kids experience growing failures as well as successes – one of the realities of working with nature.

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These delicate, furry caterpillars delighted the kids

Growing our own crops has, without doubt, had a positive effect on the way my kids approach what’s on their plates. But learning about how plants grow, how they provide for us and for wildlife, goes deeper than this. Such experiences help to form lifelong relationships with nature and develop an understanding of its fundamental role in our lives – providing us with enjoyment, wonder and the food upon which we rely.

Tulip Time…

I can’t believe it’s already time to decide which bulbs to grow next spring. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally managed to whittle the current list down to ten – based on the most reliable, perennial and beautiful varieties we’ve grown in the past 15 years…

1. ‘Ballerina’

One of my favourite tulips with its perennial nature, such a feisty colour and the way its shape and hue changes as it matures. Initially almost red, it matures to a bright orange with red stripes down the middle of each petal. It looks stunning on its own, for example as an edging plant in these images taken at Capel Manor gardens…

It thrives in my gravel garden despite clay soil, although I do plant all of my tulips with a handful of gravel beneath each bulb. I combine ‘Ballerina’ with ‘Queen of Night’ in the front gravel garden. In the back flowerbed it blooms alongside ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Queen of Night’ and blue forget-me-nots and never fails to lift my spirits when I see it emerging in the spring.

The versatile ‘Ballerina’ thrives in the back garden, front garden and in pots

2. ‘Swan Wings’

Generally I favour simple shapes and colours with my tulips, but I photographed ‘Swan Wings’ years ago at RHS Wisley and have always wanted to grow it. Maybe this year’s the year…

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3. ‘Queen of Night’

I love deep purple/black flowers and foliage; I use them in my garden and my work as often as I can. I’ve been growing ‘Queen of Night’ for years and find it reliably perennial. It combines well with lighter purple and orange tulips, but also looks stunning with white or off-white bedding plants. It works well combined with wallflower ‘Ivory White’.

4. ‘Mistress Mystic’

Combining style and subtlety, ‘Mistress Mystic’ has a vintage allure and charm all of her own. We grew this in the allotment last year; it lasted well in arrangements and worked beautifully with other soft white, green and pink tulips.

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‘Mistress Mystic’ is one of the most elegant tulips

5. ‘Prinses Irene’

Possibly one of the most beautiful tulips we’ve ever grown, ‘Prinses Irene’ is a subtle, understated winner. They thrived in pots and we’ve also been impressed by  ‘National Velvet’ which we grow alongside and which has a superb colour and sheen.

‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘National Velvet’

6. ‘Purissima’

Another favourite is ‘Purissima’ with its white/cream flowers which open up to dinner-plate size in the sun. It is a reliably perennial tulip and has lasted several years in big pots in the garden.

In pots with wild strawberries at the back and with mixed muscari at the front

7. ‘Shirley’

‘Shirley’ was the only tulip in the first garden I owned, although I didn’t know its name at the time. I loved its soft markings and photographed it in wonder. I think it’s about time I grew it again…

‘Shirley’ in my first ever garden

It looks great in a pot (with ‘Jackpot’) or in borders (with ‘Paul Scherer’ at the back)

8. ‘Purple Prince’

We grew ‘Purple Prince’ a few years ago to create a purple accent against the orange of ‘Ballerina’ and dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’, then decided we preferred the orange and dark purple on their own and marked the ‘Purple Prince’ tulips so we could remove the bulbs after flowering. Two years on they are still appearing en masse in the flowerbed so we’ve decided they can stay, especially when this serendipitous combination appeared as ‘Purple Prince’ emerged in front of the foliage of the Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. 

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9. ‘Zurel’

When we moved into my current house 6 years ago there was a purple and white rembrandt tulip in a border we had to remove to make room for the apple espaliers. We replaced it the next year with ‘Zurel’ – a striking, upbeat tulip. Unfortunately the bulbs didn’t reappear – probably because we overwintered the pineapple sage (which was sharing the same pot) in the greenhouse and they dried out. The area at the end of the vegetable beds hasn’t looked the same and we definitely need to get our stripes back.

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 10. ‘Slawa’

For maximum impact in the garden and in a vase, ‘Slawa’ doesn’t disappoint. It grew well in the allotment cutting patch and its rich two-toned flowers added a bit of spice to all my spring arrangements.

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More tulip images from my albums which have me reaching for the catalogues…

Which tulips can’t you be without and which new ones have bewitched you? Leave me a comment so I can make my wish list even longer  😉

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Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

In 2012, Oxford University Press removed around 50 nature words from the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, replacing them with technological terms such as ‘chatroom’, ‘attachment’ and ‘broadband’. As Robert MacFarlane writes in his extraordinary celebration of the language of landscape and natural life, Landmarks, ‘for blackberry, read BlackBerry‘. These substitutions reflect changing times, with three-quarters of children now spending less time in the natural environment than prison inmates. The OJD word lists are taken from data compiled from children across the country and highlight the way experiences in nature are disappearing from many young lives. Without the vocabulary to describe a bluebell or wren, how can we expect the next generation to recognise, value and conserve the natural world for the future?

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Learning about wildflowers in a Wiltshire meadow, photo credit (c): James King

One way to engage kids with the natural world over the summer holidays is to take part in campaigns such as Plantlife’s Great British Wildflower Hunt. It’s always fun to search for species to tick off – I remember many happy hours with the I-Spy books as a child – and it’s a way for adults and children to work together, sharing experiences and knowledge. When adults communicate their passion for nature to children some of the magic inevitably rubs off. I was reminded of the potency of inspiration last autumn when I asked the question ‘What began your love of gardening?’ Of the 200 or more responses, almost all began with tales of a grandparent, parent or family friend who took the time to share their love for the gardening and natural world.

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Dandelion contemplation, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Plantlife outlines two compelling reasons why we should spend more time on our hands and knees exploring the world of wildflowers close up. Firstly, wildflowers are beautiful. Yesterday, while walking in a local nature reserve with my dad, we spotted some hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). It’s a tall but modest plant in the mint family, but on closer inspection the tiny hooded flowers, circling the stem in whorls, have intricate white patterning on the deep red-purple lower lips which reminded me of the elaborate markings on orchid labella.

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Children love to explore nature closely, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Secondly, Plantlife reminds us of the undeniable, but often overlooked fact that ‘wildflowers are vital to our planet. So much depends on them – bees, butterflies and us.’ As many of us are aware, in the past century we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, species-rich grasslands which were 6,000 years in the making. As these habitats disappear, they take with them populations of wildflowers like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and native grasses like sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina) and soft brome (Bromus hordeaceus). 

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Common bird’s-foot trefoil, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Getting involved in the Great British Wildflower Hunt is easy. You can choose to search in a town or city, or in the countryside – there are different resources for each location. The Wildflower Hunt materials include activities for families and there are spotter sheets to download. Results can be submitted online and even if you don’t manage to find any wildflowers on your hunt, it doesn’t matter. All data is valuable to build a picture of the state of wildflower populations in the UK.

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Common Knapweed, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Last year, from the Channel Islands to the Orkney Islands, more than 15,200 wild flowers were spotted by the British public. 15% of participants started out saying they couldn’t name any wildflowers and were ‘unsure’ of their identification abilities, but they completed the hunt which was a fantastic achievement.  At the other end of the scale, thirteen hunters scored a full house, finding all the species on their spotter sheets and scoring the maximum 37 points.

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Celandines in Camarthan, photo credit: (c) Trevor Dines

So do something special this summer and take a walk on the wildflower side. I’m looking forward to getting out and about, exploring new sites on our holidays and adding our records to Plantlife’s database. Hopefully our sightings will be a small step along the route to conserving our native flora and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

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Fun in the bluebells woods, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Featured image photo credit: Nicola Acketts

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BBC Gardeners World Live – All About Inspiration

Visitors to BBC Gardeners World Live have a busy, exciting show ahead of them this year. With 10 show gardens, 6 smaller gardens, more than 20 beautiful borders and over 100 stands selling plants and gardening equipment, the show will provide inspirational ideas for everyone to take home.

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Inspiration is everywhere at this year’s show

Made in Birmingham

As soon as you step into the show garden area the Pullman Carriage and working steam engine draws you into the beautiful Made in Birmingham garden. Not only is the train a spectacular centrepiece, but the surrounding gardens are bursting with colourful vegetables and flowers grown by volunteers from the MIND group in Knowle, supported by Flowers from the Farm.

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Outside the Pullman Carriage I found an impressive vantage point over the whole show

I’m always in awe of giant brassicas and each one of the gargantuan specimens in the allotment section would feed a family for a month! The carriage was made in Birmingham (hence the name of the design) and the garden represents the city’s contribution to agriculture and horticulture throughout the Black Country. After visiting the garden and travelling through the train, it was no surprise to me at the Awards Ceremony when it won Platinum and Best in Show.

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Giant brassicas as seen from the train window

Young Landscapers’ Award

Taking inspiration from an initial design by Diarmuid Gavin, four top young landscapers have paired up to create The Round Garden (The Plants and Paving Company) and The Square Garden (Bespoke Outdoor Spaces) in this brand new competition supported by the Association of Professional Landscapers.

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The Round Garden

Dairmuid discussed the award, emphasising the need to encourage young people into horticultural and landscaping careers, and he also highlighted the lack of female landscapers in the competition – expressing a hope that this will change in future years as the industry becomes seen as more accessible for women. This year, Jacob Botting and Laurence Senior are deserving winners for their elegant square garden with its elegant birches, gentle planting and immaculate slate walls.

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The Square Garden

Beautiful Borders

It is encouraging that many of the borders focus on wildlife-friendly planting, particular on providing food for our pollinating insects. Bee Inspired designed by Aldethea Raymond and Tiernach McDermott for Candide, the country’s newest gardening community, which aim to connect plant-lovers across the country through their gardening app. Their border displays bee-friendly perennials and the best photo of the show uploaded to Candide’s app wins the full border display.

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I love the salvias, heucheras and fairy bug hotel in the Bee Inspired border

 

The Useful and Beautiful border designed by Alexa Ryan-Mills includes more unusual cultivars like Sambucus ‘Chocolate Marzipan’, Linaria ‘Tarte au Citron’ and Achillea ‘Prospero’ to entice pollinators and Alexa told me she has chosen flower types and shapes to accommodate different insects. There are even gooseberries in the border to encourage pollinators – in this case, wasps!

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Alexa’s border shows how planting can be both beautiful and useful

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This beautiful native fox and cubs or orange hawkbit is radiant in the border: their petals reflect ultraviolet light, making them more conspicuous to pollinators

APL Avenue

My favourite garden on the avenue, which was awarded a Gold, is Living Gardens ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ Garden designed by Peter Cowell. This is a deeply tactile garden that draws you in to touch, smell and experience the raw recycled materials and plant up close.

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I felt at home in the ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ garden

DSC_0060 (2).JPGAs I walked through the space I was impressed by the way Peter has divided the garden into rooms for entertaining, cooking, relaxing, with secret areas for children, without losing the unity of the design: each space is subtly different but linked through the use of wood, brick and delicate meadow planting.

I felt grounded in this garden, so I’ll be taking the raw sense of this design back home and experimenting with recycled materials and meadow planting in my own garden in the future. 

What I would give for a heuchera wall like this in my garden – maybe next year!

 

 

 

 

Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Chris Beardshaw recently said that he felt Chelsea show gardens should only be accepted if they were going to be relocated afterwards. It seems that other designers may be following his lead as this year’s show sees more of the gardens and planting being relocated than ever before. The recipients of the gardens are diverse; ranging from a refugee camp, a higher education college, the grounds of the Epilepsy Society, a community garden in Westminister and the grounds of the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted.

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The Myeloma UK Garden will be relocated to the Hospice of St Francis

An average of 3010 plants are used in each show garden and many of these are borrowed then returned after the show; in fact some of the plants are Chelsea veterans, reappearing in different gardens year after year. The Weston Garden embraces the philosophy of reusing materials – many of the plants have been borrowed for the duration of the show from Crocus and the rest will be reused afterwards. Plants from The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, designed by Chris Beardshaw, will be donated to the NSPCC who are organising plant sales in Barnet, North London and Maidstone, Kent. Across the whole show plants will be collected and redistributed to local schools and community gardens across East London and beyond as part of a reuse scheme set up by the landscape, architecture and art collective Wayward.

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The Urban Flow Garden plants will be donated by Thames Water to ‘Roots and Shoots’ – an environmentally-focused educational charity based in Kennington providing vocational training for young people from the inner city

The RHS Feel Good Garden is another design which is intended for a new life after the show. It will be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust which provides care and treatment to vulnerable adults in a build up area of London where green space is limited. Matt Keightley, the designer and twice-winner of the RHS/BBC People’s Choice Award, visited the NHS site in April. He said ‘I am delighted that the RHS Feel Good Garden will live on, providing a calm and beautiful space for adults in need of respite.’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden, destined for an NHS Trust site after the show

Matt is also creating a health and wellbeing garden at RHS Wisley, due to open in 2020, and the RHS Feel Good Garden is inspired by his Wisley design. With an increasing evidence base demonstrating the positive effect that gardens and gardening can have on mental health, the joint venture between the RHS and NHS to gift the garden to a mental health trust site signals the growing awareness of these benefits across the healthcare profession.

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The RHS Feel Good Garden creates a relaxing atmosphere which draws the visitor into the space

Sitting in the garden you are surrounded by soft planting in lemon, green and blue with bursts of deep reds and purples. It’s a relaxing space which also entices you to reach out and engage with your environment.

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Relaxing blue, lemon and green planting including nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’, Iris ‘Silver Edge’ and Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’

The mellow sandy and chocolate coloured paving is laid transversely to give a sense of width to the space, encouraging the visitor to slow down and enjoy the journey through the garden. I like the way the planting falls across the pathway and Matt has chosen many aromatic plants like thyme, rosemary, mint and sage to create scent as you move around the garden.

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Mellow paving to match the planting

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Beneath the seats and stonework nestle aromatic herbs and tiny campanula flowers

Grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa, Briza media,  Melica nutans and Stipa tenuissima, alongside naturalistic perennials like Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’, Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Cirsium rivulare and Dianthus cruentus create an airy filter through which the more textural plants like the ferns can be seen. The light planting also softens the cantilevered stone terraces which appear to float above the plants, grounding the visitor in the sanctuary of the garden.

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The layers of planting build up texture in the garden

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The shade loving epimedium, ferns and acorus create a sense of intimacy in these stone cavities

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Soft curves and airy planting stops the stonework becoming too heavy

The mushroom seats create more floating structures within the planting. Herbs predominate in this area so that visitors have to step on the mint and rosemary to access the stools and the scent emanating from beneath your feet commits the mind entirely to the present moment.

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These organic shaped seats give the visitor licence to immerse themselves in the garden

I sat in the garden for a while, contemplating the way it made me feel. I had a sense of being grounded in the moment; I was relaxed yet at the same time completely engaged with my environment. If the garden can foster the same feelings of happiness in the patients, staff and families at the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust that I felt yesterday, it will be an extremely worthwhile addition to the site and will hopefully encourage more dialogue and practical projects based on the important relationship between gardens, gardening and mental health.

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Striking contrast of the soft Digitalis lutea and Trollius ‘Alabaster’ with the dark, silky Iris ‘Black Swan’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden – inspiring on so many levels

‘When you are sad a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated a garden consoles. When you are consumed by anxiety it will soother you and when the world is a dark  and bleak place it shines a light to guide you on.’ Monty Don

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Winter Treats: Redwing and Fieldfare

Yesterday there was a frantic scramble at the breakfast table – there was a fieldfare in the birch tree – the first we’d ever seen in our garden. Later, as I drove down Bedfordshire lanes on the way to visit a friend, I saw fieldfare in the hedgerows and when I arrived there were redwings and fieldfare in her garden – again the first they’d ever seen. In the last few days thousands of fieldfare and redwings have arrived from Northern Europe and have been visiting gardens in search of food and shelter. There have been so many that the RSPB organised an impromptu redwing and fieldfare count today and reports of large flocks have been sent in from all over the country.

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Fieldfare in the snow (image: Alan Garner)

It’s a rare treat to see these birds so close to home, but they are visiting gardens because of the harsh weather and they act as a reminder that all garden birds need our help in the cold weather. The RSPB recommend:

  • providing fatty food, making fat balls and homemade bird cakes, and putting out kitchen scraps such as mild grated cheese, porridge oats and soaked, chopped currants, although be aware that currants are poisonous to dogs
  • providing water – with a ping pong ball in the bowl to stop it freezing or putting out juicy fruit like apples and pears
  • providing shelter – nest boxes work well and will be used by garden birds like long-tailed tits for roosting
  • offering winter shelter such as in evergreen climbers, dense hedges like privet and hawthorn, and evergreen shrubs and trees
  • even if you don’t have bird boxes or evergreen shelter, the RSPB advises propping a bucket up sideways or grouping plants in containers together to provide some shelter from the wind

Considering the fact that around one quarter of a typical UK city comprises private gardens and that the total area of UK gardens is roughly equivalent to an area one fifth the size of Wales, the potential for gardeners to make a real difference to the fate of our garden birds is clear. Our birds need a little help from us and in return we get to watch one of nature’s most beautiful sights from the comfort of our own homes.

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Another occasional winter visitor to our garden (image: Alan Garner)

What birds has the Beast from the East brought to your garden this week? Do you have any tips for ways to help our garden birds through this cold spell? Please leave your comments below. Thank you  🙂

More information on feeding garden birds is available from the RSPB website.

3 Top Tasting Tomatoes…

If you only grew 3 tomatoes this year – which cultivars would you choose?

I’ve never had this dilemma before as the greenhouse is usually a jungle of tomato foliage by June and I always defend my excessive tomato habit by claiming that growing for the school fete necessitates producing several extra trays of tomatoes – as indeed it does. But this year, having passed the responsibility of the stall onto fresh hands, I might have to acknowledge the other reasons for the tomato chaos, which include:

  1. An inability to compost unwanted seedlings
  2. An endless desire to try out new cultivars
  3. Too much focus on sowing: not enough on growing

So this year, with no pressure to grow for others, I’m going to raise fewer plants and make more time and space to care for them better. I’ve decided to choose only my 3 favourites – the ones with the best flavour – along with 4 new cultivars. I’m just intending to grow one of each type (please hold me to this) and thus I’ll be reducing my normal tomato numbers by three quarters.

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Beautiful summery colours

Reading back through my records to decide on the 3 ‘keepers’, I’ve come across a few which just don’t quite make the grade:

  • ‘Millefleur’ – a centiflor variety with hundreds of small yellow fruits, but a little disappointing on taste
  • ‘Indigo Rose’ – a deep black cherry tomato with beautiful red skin under the calyx and a sweet, meaty taste, but doesn’t quite make the top three
  • ‘Black Russian’ and ‘Black Krim’ – lovely mellow beefsteak tomatoes, great for salads, but not quite enough yield to make the grade
  • ‘Gartenperle’ – my favourite hanging basket tomato with a sweet taste and excellent yield – would be my number 4

Other good tasting tomatoes have included ‘Tumbling Tom’ – red and yellow, ‘Tigarella’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Black Opal’ and ‘Heinz 1370’, but my self-restrained top 3 would have be:

  • ‘Green Zebra’ – my children’s favourite with vibrant green stripes and a fresh tangy flavour which adds a real zing to summer salads
  • ‘Gardener’s Delight’ – an unsurprising favourite for its reliability, thin skins and sweet taste
  • Golden Sunrise – a deliciously sweet yellow tomato and my top tasting cultivar

Tomatoes form the basis of so many summer meals

Alongside these I’m trying:

  • ‘Rosella’ – a smoky rose-pink cherry tomato with high anti-oxidant levels and very few seeds
  • ‘Red Zebra’ – high levels of lycopene, excellent flavour and I can’t resist the stripes
  • ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Red’ – a sweet container tomato for the kids to grow, reaching only 30cm

And I’d like to add another tomato based on flavour recommendation, so please leave me a comment about your top tasting tomato. I’ll choose one from your delicious favourites and sow all my tomato seeds in the next few weeks. Then hopefully, come June, the greenhouse will be home to seven healthy, heavily-cropping tomato plants, with plenty of room left over for my chillies, cucumbers, marigolds and cucamelons.

Happy sowing and growing! If you’d like to follow the progress of my tomato crop in 2018, do keep in touch via social media and subscribe to the blog below…

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Thanks for all the recommendations. Here are your top tasting tomatoes, shared yesterday and today on the blog and social media:

Purple Ukraine, Japanese Black Trifele, Tigerella, Sungold, Gardeners’ Delight, Dona, Sweet Millions, Super Sweet 100, Black Russian, Tornado, Rapunzel, Bumble Bee, Black Prince, Ship Saint, Black Krim, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Rosada, Chocolate Cherokee, Maskotka, Roma, San Marzano, Rose de Berne, Tumbling Tom

What a glorious selection of assorted colours, shapes and flavours! I’ve chosen Rose de Berne to try this year. What a great excuse to order some seeds from Real Seeds and it’s just possible that some quinoa and tomato ‘Purple Ukraine’ may have snuck into the basket when I wasn’t looking… 😉

 

How Our Love Of Gardening Began – With Thanks

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how my love of gardening began and asked readers to share their own stories as part of my research for a book I’m writing on our relationship with gardening and the natural world. I was overwhelmed by the response – over the next week, more than 200 gardeners from across the world contributed 25,000 words of personal recollections. Many readers, like me, dug far back into their childhoods, unearthing tales of Victorian coal cellars, air raid shelters, RAF gardens, memorial gardens and recoveries from mental illness. The stories frequently made me smile and, at times, cry – many spoke poignantly of the importance of gardening in their lives.

Almost every story begins with reference to a family member (most often a grandparent), an inspirational figure who passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm for growing flowers, vegetables and/or fruit. There are many recollections of childhood vegetable patches – supporting the idea that giving children the chance to have a go themselves is key in getting them involved with the process. The powerful experience of watching a plant grow is important to many, with lovely stories like the lady who recalls her father nurturing a weed all summer, knowing it was a weed, just to see it grow. She writes ‘I never forgot that tiny yard with its little weed that my father looked after.’

The importance of passing a love of gardening down through the generations is also emphasised by the number of people who mention their relationship with their own children and grandchildren. I was particularly moved by the lady whose love of gardening began:

 nearly eighty years ago in 1938 when, as a five year old, I first encountered the         wondrous kingdom of the allotment, but really took off later in the war when… [I] was befriended by a German prisoner of war who worked on the strawberry field next to the allotment field, who showed me with great patience and knowledge nearly everything I needed to know.

As past moves to present, she describes the ‘greatest moment… when my granddaughter brought her son (my great grandson) down to the plot and showed him where she herself had spent so many hours with me.’ Her recollections celebrate one of the fundamental pleasures of gardening – sharing the experience with others.

Gardens are also places where memories can be revisited, places of remembrance bringing us closer to loved ones who are no longer with us. Several stories touched on the way gardening creates a connection to those we’ve lost – plants taken as cuttings from family gardens, old tools lovingly used, smells which bring back warm memories and areas of the garden dedicated to loved ones, which all have a healing effect on the soul. This aspect of gardening is explained well by one writer who says ‘to me it’s more than gardening, it’s remembering time spent together’.

Mental and physical health are also recurring themes. The benefits of fresh air and exercise are well understood and the positive effects of gardening on mental health are now becoming more widely accepted by doctors. The stories describe the way gardening has helped people cope with breakdowns, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. One lady says that gardening ‘keeps me grounded’, another that it is ‘the one thing that’s keeping me sane’. This healing force is summed up by one gardener:

Gardening is so good for the mind and soul.

Senses emerge from the stories as an important part of our memories and none more so than smell. Many people wrote of the fragrance of tomatoes, alongside ‘the smell of earth’, ‘fresh grass’, ‘tuberose and jasmine’, ‘fertilisers’ and one gentleman’s memory of Uncle Wilf’s ‘two huge Victorian glass houses’ with the smell of ‘the coke and dampness inside when the heating went on’. Taste also evokes remembrance –  my mouth was watering as I read about delicious ‘Blue-Mouth Pie’, ‘wine that tasted like whisky made from parsnips’ and the best accompaniment to cheese sandwiches – crunchy pickled onions.

It’s lovely to read about those who come to gardening later in life, either when they  start growing houseplants or herbs on the windowsill, take on a new garden or begin to garden for or with someone else – a partner, parent or their children. These stories are filled with the joy of new discoveries, the sense of satisfaction when new gardens are transformed and several references to wonderful mother-in-laws who have passed on their knowledge – as one lady writes ‘I just can’t ask for a better mother-in-law nor a better gift than what she has taught me… introducing me to the pleasure that is gardening!’

For many, the interaction with nature is at the heart of time in the garden; as one gardener writes ‘quite simply I garden for nature’. Childhoods were spent playing in the woods and fields, birdwatching, learning the names of wildflowers, reading I-Spy books and adding contributions to the nature table (a tradition missing from many modern classrooms). Several people refer to a ‘kind of spirituality’ or innate connection ‘to the earth’ experienced whilst gardening which one gardener believes is ‘in everybody’s subconscious’. Whatever the essence of this love of the land, almost all the gardeners who responded are in agreement that it arises from contact with the earth and learning from inspiring friends or family members, and that it is important to pass on to others.

I began the first piece on how the love of gardening begins considering the inspiration I took from my Granny and I end the second with thoughts of how I might influence my own children. Although not everyone who responded had gardened throughout their lives, the majority saw the foundations of their love of gardening arising from their childhoods – even if they had come back to it later in life. In a society where engagement with nature is no longer seen as intrinsic to learning about the world, in a curriculum which marginalises nature study, we need, more than ever, to be sharing our love of gardening with the younger generation. ‘If children are introduced to gardening when young, it wires your brain for life!’ writes one lady and another suggests ‘we must teach our children about the natural world if we are to have any chance of protecting it.’

Thank you for sharing your inspiring stories – it’s lovely to read about the wide-ranging positive effects of gardening and to know that so many are passing on their love and knowledge for gardening and the natural world to the next generation. 

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Kaffir limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).

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Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.

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‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.

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Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂